I’ve already put Orson Scott Card’s 1985 award-winning sci-fi novel on my reading list for the year, but I couldn’t help but watch the film adaptation of Ender’s Game in advance. Directed by Gavin Hood (the South African who won a Best Foreign Pic Oscar for Tsotsi and made the first Wolverine film), the film stars Hugo’s rapidly growing Asa Butterfield as the titular Ender, a kid chosen to lead a rebellion against an alien race in the 22nd century. Butterfield is backed up by a superb all-star cast led by Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin.
I’ll be upfront: Ender’s Game starts off as a really intriguing young adult sci-fi thriller that is fairly entertaining and bolstered by solid and creative special effects. But by the end of the film it felt like a wasted opportunity that barely scratched the surface of what it could have been. Not having read the book, I don’t know how much depth Card goes into in terms of exploring this fascinating future world, but the film version is riddled with unexplained mysteries and gaps that make you question the plot’s common sense and logic. It was as though most of the important background to the story was purposely omitted because it would have been too difficult to explain.
The basic premise is this: in 2086, an alien race attacks Earth but some brave military commander sacrifices himself and saves everyone. Fifty years later, the war is still raging and young Ender (Butterfield), who is constantly monitored along with the other kids through a device in their neck, is chosen by Colonel Graff (Ford) to join the International Fleet, where they train kids like him to fight in the war.
The majority of the film’s 114-minute running time takes place at the Battle School, where Ender learns new skills, strategies, and takes part in war games with his fellow recruits. There is a sense of excitement when all of this takes place because you don’t know what to expect, but what makes the viewing entertaining is Ender’s interactions with the other cadets, and seeing how he hones his natural abilities to rise from the crop to become a leader. Yes, it’s yet another one of those “chosen one” stories, but for the most part it was executed effectively.
Asa Butterfield, who I loved in Hugo, is excellent as Ender. He’s rail thin but you can believe his intelligence and toughness, though there is a strange sort of distance about his character (it feels almost psychopathic) that makes him difficult to really like. Harrison Ford is basically an old Han Solo, while Viola Davis is pretty underutilized as his sidekick. Hailee Steinfeld gets a decent chunk of screen time as a fellow cadet and potential love interest, but Abigail Breslin doesn’t get to do much as Ender’s earthbound sister.
The problem I had when watching Ender’s Game was the feeling that I didn’t understand the world Card had built in his book(s). We get hints of some kind of semi-post-apocalyptic world that is dominated by an autocratic government from some of the Earth scenes, but it wasn’t like they were living among the rubble of an annihilated planet. I was curious why the world had become what it became, and how it happened. And why were they recruiting kids to fight an alien war? We know there are still capable adults, and it is said that only “millions”, not “billions” perished in the initial battle. We don’t even know what the status of the war is, except that Earth is obviously still under some kind of threat.
The vagueness extends to the battle games the kids play to train themselves. It’s a visual spectacular, with teams in futuristic space suits shooting laser beams around an obstacle course of sorts in zero gravity conditions. But we have absolutely no idea what the rules are or even what they are doing, which reminded me, very randomly, of when Conan O’Brien tried to provide commentary at some international Wold of Warcraft competition.
I understand it’s probably all too difficult to explain in a movie, but at least give us something other than the expressions of the actors to at least let us know if they’re winning or losing. And by the way, it’s not clear how any of their training helps them prepare for real battle, which appears to be fought strategically inside space ships anyway! Too much just didn’t make sense, especially the final climax of the movie, which was somewhat predictable but also inexplicably ludicrous (can’t say much more than that without spoilers).
Having said all that, Ender’s Game was still relatively enjoyable to watch as a popcorn flick, particular at the beginning. If you don’t think and just go for the ride along with all the big stars, you might even find it pretty cool. But the holes just kept adding up, and the more you think about it, the more the whole narrative just falls apart. Given that the film has been a box office bomb (barely made back its $110 million budget), it’s unlikely we’ll have the opportunity to understand more of the world depicted in the film in future entries.
3 stars out of 5